Remarque’s All Quiet on the WesternnFront, and today, most of the deluge ofnVietnam novels. Michael Herr’s Dispatchesnwas an anti-American diatribenset in the war zone; Phillip Caputo’snA Rumor of War a well-crafted memoirnthat will probably not be improved on.nEven so, Caputo’s book is weak when itnfixes on the larger questions: in wonderingnwhy we were in Vietnam, he failsnto find answers more original than thosenoffered in the past by Joan Baez, andnso proves that being there does notnguarantee clear thinking on all fronts.nIt ought not to be expected that soldiersnreturning from the horrors ofncombat, or even several years removednfrom it, will mouth patriotic pieties.nThe older ones, officers and noncomsnalike, usually do not like talking aboutnwhat they saw and did in battle. Andnyounger men, even those who were atnfirst filled with excitement at thenthought of going to war, mysteriouslynage quickly, as those who know themnhave always observed.nThe veterans of Vietnam are no differentnin that sense than the men whonfought at Chateau Thierry and Bastognenand Inchon. But the literature of Vietnamnis immensely different, at least thensecond wave of it, different in that itnleaves the battlefield to fix on moralnquestions that challenge all who carento be so challenged. The Young Lionsnand The Naked and the Dead couldnhave been written about any war. Caputo’snbook, however, leaves the realmnof art and becomes a quasi-political confession:nhis pat answers to questionsnabout Vietnam dilute its impact. Thensame is not true of Tim O’Brien’s Goingnafter Cacciato, though O’Brien’s politicsnare probably close kin to Caputo’s.nIt goes without saying that the Americannliterary establishment will reflexivelynapplaud anything in print thatncondemns the American involvement innIndochina. And as we have seen, littlenhas been published about that tragicnchapter in our history that does not railnagainst the immorality of Americannforeign policy, the corruptness of thenSOinChronicles of CulturenSaigon regime, etc. Little noticed, untilnrecently, were the consequences of thentriumph of America’s enemy in thatnconflict, and even now people like IrvingnHowe write pathetically that liberalnopponents of the war had no way ofnknowing that rule by Hanoi would benworse than Saigon’s. The literature ofnVietnam has been a dreary cacophonynof liberal cliches.nX o the soldiers, the war in Vietnamnwas a war without a perceivable purpose.nO’Brien writes that:n”They did not know even the simplenthings: a sense of victory, or satisfaction,nor necessary sacrifice. They didnnot know the feeling of taking a placenand calling it victory. No sense of ordernor momentum. No front, no rear,nno trenches laid out in neat parallels.nNo Patton rushing for the Rhine, nonbeachheads to storm and win and holdnfor the duration. They did not haventargets. They did not have a cause.”nThe American antiwar movementnspread lies of marauding U.S. infantrymennmowing down Oriental women andnchildren, which proved convenient fornthe politburos in Hanoi and Moscow.nThe manipulators in Washington, havingnsent men to fight in Vietnam,nabandoned them to pointless years ofnswamp patrols without inspiration ornsense of purpose. As domestic politicalnconsiderations led two administrationsnto soft-pedal even the thought of victory,nagitprop a la Jane Fonda supplantednthe advice of real soldiers in the Vietnamncommand posts as well as in thencorridors of Washington. Vietnam becamena public-relations headache fornthe American government. The troops,nwith no sense of what they were aboutnbut to survive, ignored orders, murderednofficers, and consumed drugs onnan epidemic scale. In Going after Cacciato,nthe terrifying lack of a sense ofnduty or purpose, or any traditionalnmilitary objective is filled by the surrealnmirage of Cacciato’s flight. The fantasynworld of the bedraggled buddies of thirdnnnsquad, first platoon. Alpha company isnvastly different from the idyllic daydreamsnof vintage 1942 dogfaces ofnEbbets Field and Coney Island. Paris—nas distant from Vietnam as the U.S.A.,nbut fabulous and unknown: “Gay Pareen—bare ass and Frogs everywhere, thenFollies Brassiere,” says the burnt-outnlifer. Lieutenant Corson. Above all, eonsnremoved from the reality of Vietnam.nBut Cacciato’s odyssey is somehownreal to Paul Berlin and his fellow troopers.nO’Brien’s chapters alternate betweennthe squalid world of jungle fighting andnthe phantasmagorical trek across Asianand Europe as the squad follows in itsnimaginary pursuit of Cacciato. Then,nfrom his observation post on his seeminglynendless night watch, Berlin strugglesnto sort out what is real from whatnis the bizarre meandering of a deadenednspirit.nBerlin, the individual who steps backnfrom the nightmare of search-and-destroynmissions, understands that thenimpressions of war men retain are of thendetails—the stink of the paddy mud,nthe rain; the innocent things, likenscores of intersquad basketball games.nThe great issues of geopolitics that sentnhim and his comrades to a place namednQuang Ngai, where a West Point-educatednplatoon leader gets his men killednby sticking to standard operating procedures,nare as distant as the moon.nBut there was, as O’Brien’s novel makesnpoignantly clear, a gnawing sense ofnsomething missing, that as Americannsoldiers they had expected and deserved.nThe SAVAK policeman who arrestsnthe squad in Tehran en route to Parisnin Berlin’s subterranean consciousnessnsays it best: “Purpose is what keeps thensoldier from running. Without purposenmen will run. They will act out theirndreams, and they will run and run, likenanimals in a stampede.” Cacciato, thensquad loner, the man with wit and ansense of who he was, ran, not to Paris,nbut simply—away, to be listed as missingnin action. The rest of the squad did notnchase him past the cliff where they lastnsaw him. But, with nothing else to sus-n